Judge rules for BLM in N.M. gas well challenge | AspenTimes.com

Judge rules for BLM in N.M. gas well challenge

Sue Major Holmes
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ” A federal judge has denied a conservation group’s effort to require the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to put more work into a plan for nearly 10,000 new gas wells in the San Juan Basin of northern New Mexico.

U.S. District Judge Judith C. Herrera, in a 39-page decision last week, said the BLM followed the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal laws in developing a 2003 management plan for drilling over 20 years in the 16,000-square-mile basin that straddles the border of New Mexico and Colorado.

“Having exhaustively reviewed the voluminous record … the court finds the BLM acted appropriately,” she wrote in the Sept. 30 decision.

Steve Henke, district manager for the BLM’s Farmington field office in northwestern New Mexico, said agency officials were pleased by the ruling.

The BLM has been working under the plan for five years, since there was no injunction on development while the lawsuit by the San Juan Citizens Alliance was pending. Henke said nearly 3,000 natural gas wells have been drilled in the area since the plan’s approval, with about half the production coming from coal bed methane near Fruitland.

“We feel the plan balances that natural gas development with protection and mitigation … for other resource values,” he said.

The New Mexico portion of the San Juan Basin, under development for more than 50 years, encompasses one of the largest natural gas fields in the nation. It produces 3 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, about 6 percent of the gas consumed daily, Henke said.

The resource management plan authorizes nearly 27,000 acres of new surface disturbance on land under the Farmington office, increasing total acreage for oil and gas infrastructure to 110,400. The plan’s preferred alternative could increase carbon monoxide emissions by 42,000 tons a year and nitrogen oxides by more than 43.5 tons a year by 2024.

Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance said arguments raised in the lawsuit are more valid than ever.

“In the time elapsed since the lawsuit was filed, air quality has further declined in the San Juan Basin due in part to the vast number of gas facilities approved by the BLM’s Farmington office,” he said.

The lawsuit asked the court to set aside the plan until the BLM complied with NEPA, the National Historic Preservation Act and the federal Land Policy and Management Act. Alliance officials said they did not want the basin to become a one-use area for oil and gas only.

Eisenfeld said the group is now exploring its options.

“The judge seemed to say our challenge should be more on the implementation phase of the management plan,” he said.

A study for the BLM predicted 9,970 new wells would be drilled in the basin between 2002 and 2022, although technological advances could reduce that number.

The judge noted the plan does not authorize specific development activities and that new wells could be drilling only with additional site-specific environmental analyses.

“NEPA does not require that an agency discuss every potential impact in great detail; it simply requires a reasoned evaluation of the relevant factors,” Herrera wrote. “Moreover, NEPA does not require that an agency evaluate environmental concerns over other appropriate considerations.”

Her decision also said the BLM’s discussion of mitigation measures is “somewhat thin,” but was adequate to meet statutory requirements.

Government Accountability Office investigators are looking into the BLM’s practice of approving some drilling projects without a full environmental study of the consequences. The GAO said the practice, authorized by the 2005 Energy Act, has been used thousands of times at the field offices in Farmington; Price and Vernal, Utah; and Pinedale, Wyo.

Environmental groups say the investigation is overdue; industry executives condemn it as political.

Henke told The Associated Press earlier this week that with each drilling proposal, “we still do an onsite inspection, a threatened or endangered species review and a cultural resources inventory, and we attach appropriate mitigation with each approval. So it’s a not a complete short circuiting of a review process.”

The GAO said the Farmington district issued 980 categorical exclusions in fiscal years 2006 and 2007. Henke, however, gave these figures: 444 in fiscal 2005; 364 in 2006; 236 in 2007; and an estimated 180 this year.

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